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On Being Translators in Government
On bridging the inside and the outside
There is often a disconnect when people ask me what my title is in the government and when I explain what it is that I really do. Engineering/data skills are my seat on the table but when I look back a lot of my most “useful” projects within the government have had little to do with those skills. Often, I am just using first-principles on problem statements.
First-principles and having my heart at the right place helps work on a lot of low-hanging fruits. But there is a limit to first principles. They are appealing but when you start working on meatier problems what seems like an obvious solution is often not. First principles are shaped by lived experiences. However much I’ve subdued the technocrat in me, it still comes out with a muffled voice. Everything is not simple or has an elegant solution. Having your heart in the right place is subjective. Some of the most problematic projects have been pursued by people who thought their heart was in the right place and they had the right intentions. Identifying problems within the government is easy, especially when you are new and have a fresh outlook. But one’s skill to detect problems easily shouldn’t lead to an overestimation of the ease of solving them. There is only so much you know.
While, I have personally decided being “inside” better fits my goals at the moment, there are many things the “outside” is better at. Against the paradox of government being slow, individually most days are about moving fast and working with minimal information. On the other hand, the “outside” has the luxury of really understanding the root of many hard problems. People have different politics, approaches and levers to pull to work on the same problem statements. Some are pursuing more radical approaches to change, some are generating knowledge for the sake of it to advance their careers and some explicitly hope that their work finds an audience “inside” but don’t know how to achieve that.
How do we bridge the gap between the outside and the inside?
We can be translators. We can use our seat at the table to bring in the conversations happening outside. It’s a powerful position with great responsibility. Not every conversation outside of the government is useful, some are problematic and all carry their own politics. Not everything you read or learn about will or should have an audience within. But you understand the priorities within, the constraints and the vocabulary. You wait for the opportune moments to introduce conversations. You use those conversations to shape your everyday work. It can be as simple as sharing a news article in the many government WhatsApp groups you are part of, inviting people to talks, setting up and mediating collaborations or creating bullet-points from papers you’ve read for your superiors. Make both worlds understand each other.
Listen. Be aware. Be interdisciplinary. Read. Engage. Filter. Package. Wait. Use your seat at the table, be a translator.